24’s moral dilemmas and your own moral philosophy

24’s moral dilemmas and your own moral philosophy

Brian Carney says that the anti-terrorism TV show “24” illustrates the difficulty of making moral decisions in the midst crises in which lives are on the line.

In a variety of forms, the sticky situation with which the series began has formed the heart of the show ever since: Terrorist threats place American civilians and government officials in a position in which they must choose between conflicting loyalties. It is the show’s genius, and the key to its enduring appeal, that its writers almost never lapse into thinking that these choices are simple. This is not to say that there are no right and wrong answers. But right and wrong are often only clear—especially to the characters, but even to the viewer—in retrospect.

It’s not that everything the character Jack Bauer does is right or that the end justifies the means, but that it’s important to recognize that in the heat of the moment when faced with choices of life or death it can be difficult to discern the correct path. This is why thinking about such things in advance is so important.

Similarly, astronauts spend about 90 percent of the training for spaceflight preparing for every kind of emergency that can be imagined and some that are just so improbable as to be nearly fantasy. And they train for them over and over and over so that if—when—the situation presents itself they can rely on trained reflexes and to get bogged down in emotion and paralytic fear.

And so it’s important for the moral person to prepare himself for those moral emergencies that might present themselves. Like in “24”, if a terrorist were to kidnap your family and ordered you to help him in a plot that would take thousands of lives, what would you do? Like on the real United 93, if terrorists were to take over the airplane you’re on and were planning to crash it into a building, what would you do? Or more plausibly, if a colleague were to ask you to do something illegal or someone tempted you to commit adultery or so on and so forth, what would you do?

I have a friend who works in law enforcement training, who said that the most important skill they teach their trainees is to visualize success. He said that in a life or death struggle—and after all what is sin, but a life or death struggle for your soul?—it is the person who imagines themselves succeeding and cannot imagine failure who will have the edge.

Back in Carney’s article, I get the feeling that he ends up making a utilitarian argument or makes the end justify the means, which is something I cannot endorse. But the larger issue of examining your moral philosophy before it’s put to the test is one I can get behind wholeheartedly.

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
  • Since you are a ‘24’ fan or at least viewer, I have a question. We just started watching season 1 on DVD from netflix.  It is engrossing and plan on continuing, but does the unnessesary sex get toned down.  In the first four hours, there were 2 intercourse scenes, a full on lesbian kiss and an implied sex act on the street.  Oh and two nudity shots.

    I haven’t watched much tv in the last few years, so I had no idea how bad it had gotten.

    So does that tone down after they knew the show was a hit?

  • Are you sure you’re watching “24” and not some adult version of it? I don’t remember any of that. I’m fairly certain it gets toned down. I can’t think of anything in the past two seasons like that.

  • It’s pretty violent and one of my favorite shows, not because of the violence but again how to deal with evil when you’re faced with it.

  • I actually went back and looked on Netflix to see if it was a more racey release on DVD.  But it said TV-14.  Now in the scenes, there wasn’t anything expicit visible, but the one nudity scene was when the lady that blew up the plane was burning everything in the desert.  She apparently burned her clothes too cuz she was nude (from a distance and in the dark.)

    I wondered if it was just the early shows that were trying to ensure it wouldn’t get canceled or whatever.

  • Keep in mind, I haven’t seen season one since it first aired back in 2001, but I still don’t recall the scene. Maybe because you’re watching it on DVD the details are clearer. I was watching it on the same fuzzy analog TV I use today so maybe I couldn’t see that she was naked in the distance.

  • I don’t think Jack is facing a whole lot of moral dilemmae when he puts the plastic bag over his brother’s head.  I get the impression that he’s been waiting 30 years for an excuse to do exactly that.

    I see “24” as an     comic book.  A grown-up version of Buzz Lightyear.  Comic books don’t really (or shouldn’t) lend themselves to philosophizing.  You’re just supposed to settle back and enjoy the ride.

  • KaleJ,

    I read your comment before and had the same reaction “are you sure this is 24?” I’ve started rewatching some of the DVDs I have, and all I can say is that I do not remember ANY of those scenes…I mean, I remember seeing them originally, but they completely fall out in the whole of the series. I’m not sure if that’s a “numbing” thing or if they’re just useless scenes to the greater story narratives, but I don’t recall any other scenes outside of the first 4 hours of season 1 that are like that…

    …for whatever that’s worth.